There is a new Ram Gopal Varma movie in the theatres. A little while ago, that statement used to be welcomed enthusiastically. But given the filmmaker’s free-fall collapse in form, it is now treated with a mixture of trepidation and weariness.
At the outset, this third chapter of Sarkar (2005), one of Varma’s last entirely watchable films, isn’t as egregious as his recent attempts. Some attention has been paid to the storytelling, and some of the camerawork is actually not risible. The bizarrely framed camera angles are kept to a minimum, although there is a repeated point-of-view shot from a character’s ring, leading to futile speculation about a spying device hidden in the precious stone.
There is the loud background music designed to resemble a religious chant, but it is relatively less shrill than in the older films. The shots of women’s derrieres are missing, although we did spot at least one barely clad nymph and one sullen-faced female (played by Yami Gautam), who glowers at all times for no reason.
At least for the first half of the 132-minute film¸ Varma manages to rustle up some interest in yet another utterly predictable episode in the never-ending saga of Subhash Nagre (Amitabh Bachchan). A Mumbai thug and extra-constitutional authority who is a composite of Bal Thackeray, Robin Hood and Don Corleone, Nagre has lost various family members to the machinations of his enemies. He loathes politicians but has the chief minister on speed dial and lords over the political system while claiming to be above it.
Chikoo (Amit Sadh) arrives on the scene in the same manner as Andy Garcia’s character did in The Godfather 3. Chikoo is Nagre’s grandson, and has inherited the foul temper and violent streak of his father (Kay Kay Menon), who died in the first part. Chikoo is entitled enough to demand a share of Nagre’s influence, which naturally irritates Nagre’s loyal henchman Gokul (Ronit Roy). Amit Sadh wears black throughout the film, refuses to shave, and scowls and swaggers about, but never for a minute is he convincing as a chip off the Nagre block.
Circling around Nagre like vultures waiting for the corpses to pile up is a reliable posse of villains, led by the dapper Michael (Jackie Shroff). The source of Nagre’s income is never revealed, but one can speculate that it doesn’t leave him enough to pay his electricity bills. Surrounded by statues and busts and forever seated in shadows inside rooms shielded from natural light by shades, Nagre is a staggeringly obvious dark overlord, but there is brightness whenever Michael is around and welcome humour in Shroff’s performance. His only brief is to vamp it up, and he does so gladly and unselfconsciously.
For all his much-vaunted influence, Nagre is highly vulnerable to attack – a scripting flaw that cannot be mistaken for astute plotting. The culprit is ultimately not any of Sarkar’s arch-enemies but the filmmaker’s famed cynicism at the political class and the institutions that hold society together. Varma’s dismissal of due process, of the legitimacy of elected representatives and the law and order machinery and people driven by political ideology, reaches peak optimisation in Sarkar 3. In the director’s pessimistic worldview, everybody is a sellout, including Manoj Bajpayee’s secretly corrupt political activist, and Subhash Nagre alone is worthy of respect and emulation.
This veneration doesn’t leave any room for character shading or an exploration of Nagre’s psyche, but it does allow for occasionally arresting tableaux of the don seated on his throne, flanked by his minions and slurping tea from a saucer while maintaining the balance of things. Amitabh Bachchan’s perfectly judged performance and the gravitas and authority that the thespian brings to his performance keep these scenes from sliding into pure parody.
Whenever the goings-on get too ponderous, and whenever there are too many non sequitur conversations on the nature and meaning of power, Jackie Shroff’s Michael shows up like an unexpected ray of sunshine. Light floods the frames and levity the narrative. “All the women I have given rings to have died,” he tells his moll – one of the few moments of fun in a soap opera that takes itself far too seriously at all times.